Political Animal


March 27, 2012 4:02 PM Hypocrisy on Disclosure of Campaign Ads

By Ed Kilgore

Given the various constitutional problems afflicting efforts to reform campaign financing, it’s more than a bit important, particularly in the post-Citizens United era, that the purchasing of political ads be as transparent as possible. Yet, as Monthly alum Steve Waldman reports at the Columbia Journalism Review site, a number of prominent news organizations are actually fighting a small move towards greater transparency:

For those who haven’t followed the drama, the FCC has proposed that the “public inspection files” that local TV stations have long been required to keep—in a paper file, in cabinets, in their offices—be put online. These files contain invaluable information about who is buying political advertisements, for federal, state and local races. (See CJR’s recent exploration of some of these files in five states, and read about the New America Foundation’s ongoing efforts to crowdsource these files). The notion of moving the “public inspection files” from ink to pixels is not exactly radical stuff but it would make it easier for journalists to track the flow of campaign spending.
(Full disclosure: I was the lead author of a report that prompted this proposal to move the paper file to the Internet.)
Amazingly, the same news organizations that routinely demand transparency from government—and rely on the prompt disclosure of public information for their stories—are opposing the rule.
For instance, Politico regularly runs articles about campaign spending. Yet one of the strongest opponents of this transparency rule is Politico’s owner, Allbritton Communications Company (which also owns in WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, and several other local TV stations.) Jerald Fritz, vice president of Allbritton, argues that putting these forms online is a slippery slope toward a “Soviet-style standardization” of how ads are sold.

Network-owned local television stations have also joined the parade of opposition to Internet disclosure of ad sales. There’s quite a broad pattern of letting the sales rep’s interest trump those of the reporter. And it’s not as though these are hungry times for the political ad biz, either. But more fundamentally, as Waldman notes:

This isn’t just another same-old-same-old case of an industry opposing a disclosure regulation. An important statement from the deans of twelve leading journalism schools put it well: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover; it seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principle to themselves.”
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Krowe on March 27, 2012 4:51 PM:

    'Soviet-style standardization' of how ads are sold"

    Cuz, you know, those commies were all about commercials.

  • JCtx on March 27, 2012 6:16 PM:

    If these files are supposed to be open for public inspection, does that mean a group of interested parties could get access to the paper files and post them in a WikiLeaks fashion or something?

  • jsjiowa on March 27, 2012 6:46 PM:

    I think they're afraid that if it becomes widely known that political candidates get a better advertising rate than commercial advertisers, it will push the price of ads (and thus, revenues) down in general. The First Amendment is only important when it increases their revenues.... (snark fully intended).

  • bdop4 on March 27, 2012 6:58 PM:

    We the people authorize the FCC to grant licenses to these companies as a PRIVELIGE to use OUR AIRWAVES. There used to be a time when regulators had no hesitancy to pound this message into the thick skulls of licensees.

    Personally, I would ban political ads altogether as they undermine the political process, but in the meantime, it would be nice to see regulators flex their muscle from time to time.

  • Neildsmith on March 28, 2012 6:54 AM:

    This is a wonderful story... it's pretty clear that a large part of our problem with polarization and the debasement of our political discourse is the media companies who profit from it.

  • zandru on March 28, 2012 12:18 PM:

    bdop4 and "OUR AIRWAVES":

    Considering that so few of the available "channels" are still being "broadcast" (through the air), and nearly everything is on private wirelines (cable) or privately-run satellite (dish), does the argument about the Public Airwaves even make any sense anymore?